Point of View

Top 3 Themes from the 2023 AFP Conference

In a fast-paced world where change is the only constant, the challenges we face often unite us more than we realize. At the 2023 Association of Finance Professionals (AFP) Conference, we were reminded of this universal truth. It was remarkable to see that most of us are grappling with the same fundamental issues and interested in the same “hot topics,” regardless of industry or size of organization. 

Here’s our round-up of the top 3 themes. 

1. Automation & AI: A New Horizon

The challenges of lean budgets and macroeconomic uncertainties have made it clear that we need to leverage technology to create efficiency and predictability. The buzz is there, but the majority of us are still at the early stages of this transformative journey.

In his talk on Scenario Based Planning, Victor Valencia, CTP, Head of Finance, Amazon called us lucky to be living through this decade which is marked by innovation, disruption, and also confusion of figuring it out. He also added that one thing is for sure that there is no alternative to learning to live with automation. As businesses seek to better understand the link between their performance and macro-economic factors, companies are taking action to implement internal capabilities to identify and mitigate future risks. Automation not only offers a great solution but also leaves finance teams with enough resources to achieve thoughtful and superior decision-making.

Key Takeaway: As Kat Orekhova, CEO at Vareto and Walter Harris, SVP at AARP shared in their session on Automation and AI, the three major actionables for today that will enable finance teams to prepare themselves for automation are:

a. Define the vision for your Finance org. What do you want it to be in the next five years? 

b. Create and execute on the “data roadmap.” Cover the prerequisites to ensure your team is ready. 

c. Learn and experiment. As Nike says, ‘just do it’. Don’t get left behind. At this stage, progress and learning matter more than perfection.

2. Need for Speed

The pace and sophistication of planning and forecasting processes have accelerated. Much of it can be attributed to the ever-changing business environment. 

But that also means that the decisions have to be thought-through and research based. Faster decisions shouldn’t stem from lack of insights. If at all, this only increases the requirement for readily available data and information in a readable and analyzable format.

Jared Ireland, Senior Manager FP&A, CarMax and Philip Peck, VP Advisory & FP&A Transformation, Peloton urged the audience to “go slow to go fast”. In their session on Dynamic Planning, Forecasting, & Analytics at the Speed of Business, they suggested that the more you can simplify the process of transformation to dynamic planning the better it is. Try to rationalize the planning & forecasting level of detail as much as possible.

Key Takeaway: Engage with your business stakeholders and adapt to their needs. Here are some key takeaways from the sessions that focused on creating efficient finance processes using automation.

a. Learn to move at the speed of business: Perhaps the most important takeaway. Your business landscape is changing everyday and finance teams can’t afford to not match the speed. 

b. Create the needed infrastructure: Establish best in class processes and tools needed to move fast like FP&A planning software, BI tools, Gen AI tools, Spreadsheets, and more.

c. Clearly communicate the need for speed: Your team must know why they need to move fast and so must you. A clearly articulated why sets everything simplified and straight.

3. The Power of Soft Skills

The role of a finance professional is no longer just about numbers and spreadsheets. The evolving nature of finance roles has given rise to a growing demand for advanced people skills. As data manipulation and other repetitive tasks become automated, finance professionals will increasingly spend more time discussing scenarios and transforming into strategic partners of their business counterparts. The ability to adapt, collaborate, communicate effectively, and lead with empathy is increasingly becoming important.

In fact, to achieve high-frequency, accurate forecasts, finance teams are integrating business stakeholder input more regularly. Similarly, the business is also constantly looking towards finance teams with different objectives and expectations for better predictability and forecasting of the future. The days of cookie-cutter solutions are over and every function needs tailored information that can help them achieve their goals. 

For example, in a manufacturing organization the sales team might ask for real-time customer credit data, manufacturing might need production cost insights, marketing would require tracked campaign ROI, and leadership would ask for high-level summaries. This personalized approach improves efficiency and decision-making across the organization.

A collaborative approach was highlighted as a significant driver of success in the ever-changing financial landscape. 

In one of the loudest sessions at the conference that focused on the need for this transition, most people agreed when the speakers spoke about collaborative leadership. 

Alyssa Cox, speaker of the Transitioning from Number Cruncher to Strategic Partner session, aptly noted that the world is moving towards leaders who lead by influence and not by authority. You need to go beyond data crunching. Organizations require strategic thinkers, decision makers and collaborators who can join hands with the team to quickly adapt to a fast changing world, if need be.

Cox also urged the room to create your leadership brand statement, sooner rather than later.

Key Takeaway: Easier said than done, soft skills also need to be developed over time. So if you need to start, here are some key takeaways on how to garner the power of human skills in finance.

a. Communication skills: Improve your communication and negotiation skills constantly. 

b. Empathy and understanding: Develop more empathy and understanding of your business and its stakeholders by proactively learning more about them, their professional objectives and challenges, and even their personal lives.

c. Leadership brand statement: Be clear about what you work on, how you work with others and how you define success.

The energy at the 2023 AFP conference was palpable. The optimism around AI and automation can be seen in the loud cheers of trust and visible interest to learn more. 

The path forward is clear:

  • Embrace Automation & AI, one step at a time.
  • Collaborate with business stakeholders to enhance forecasting and planning processes.
  • Invest in developing your soft skills.

It's not about where you start but how you progress. We’re sure all of us will take these insights and transform our finance organizations into forward-thinking, adaptive, and successful entities. 

What are your views on the adoption of automation and AI for finance organizations? If you were at the AFP 2023 conference then do share your learnings as well. 

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